October 25, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In a post on the New York Times‘ philosophy blog “The Stone,” Steven Pinker attempts to put the American red-state/blue-state divide in historical context. Pinker, a distinguished professor of psychology and a well-known public intellectual, writes knowledgeably on many topics. I suspect, though, that he’s gone too far afield here. Relying on the work of a few other academics, Pinker posits that
… the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.
Pinker notes that
Broadly speaking, the Southern and Western desert and mountain states will vote for the candidate who endorses an aggressive military, a role for religion in public life, laissez-faire economic policies, private ownership of guns and relaxed conditions for using them, less regulation and taxation, and a valorization of the traditional family. Northeastern and most coastal states will vote for the candidate who is more closely aligned with international cooperation and engagement, secularism and science, gun control, individual freedom in culture and sexuality, and a greater role for the government in protecting the environment and ensuring economic equality.
Why so? According to Pinker, because
The North was largely settled by English farmers, the inland South by Scots-Irish herders. Anthropologists have long noted that societies that herd livestock in rugged terrain tend to develop a ‘culture of honor.’ Since their wealth has feet and can be stolen in an eye blink, they are forced to deter rustlers by cultivating a hair-trigger for violent retaliation against any trespass or insult that probes their resolve. Farmers can afford to be less belligerent because it is harder to steal their land out from under them, particularly in territories within the reach of law enforcement. As the settlers moved westward, they took their respective cultures with them.
When people from the North and the South moved West, Pinker writes, they found themselves in areas where there was no government. Anarchy prevailed in lands where “The nearest sheriff might be 90 miles away, and a man had to defend himself with firearms and a reputation for toughness.” Women and churches tried to temper this predilection for violence, so “By the time the government consolidated its control over the West (and recall that the ‘closing of the frontier,’ marking the end of American anarchy, took place just more than a century ago), the norms of self-defense through masculine honor, and the restraint of ruffianism by women and church, had taken root.” To explain why the denizens of the American West never accepted the supremacy of the government, Pinker writes, “The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that ‘democracy came too soon to America,’ namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens.” Ergo, “vigilante justice” and skepticism of government control survives.
There is more to Pinker’s essay, and I commend it to you. But what I have outlined is the extent of his argument for the red-state/blue-state divide. Pinker may be on the right track, but he leaves out essential historical elements that make a much better case for why political philosophies varied regionally.
Pinker explains the great difference between the North and the South as one between English farmers and Scots-Irish herdsmen. In fact, settlers in all areas had to practice both forms of agriculture. All of the peoples from the British Isles were omnivores, after all, so they needed to raise both crops and animals. And they did. The difference between the North and the South lay not in their occupations but in the very natures of their move to the New World – and what they did when they got here.
The first white settlers to New England came together and they came voluntarily. They belonged to a small, cohesive religious society before they arrived. Even before they established their first community, the men had established a form of governance that amounted to a social contract – the Mayflower Compact – in which they all agreed to “follow the rules.” As newer settlers came to New England, they established similar rules of governance. Freeholders and then selectmen governed the small communities, and everybody “played by the rules.” The rules were strict, and they were church-centered. In some communities, judges would come unannounced to people’s homes on Sundays to make sure the family was keeping the Sabbath. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was invited to leave. Roger Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island, after the freeholders of several towns banished him. (The General Court in Boston eventually convicted him of heresy and sedition, and he escaped to Narragansett Bay just ahead of the sheriff.) The Salem (and other) witch trials are called “trials” for a reason: they were community-based decisions. While the trials and convictions may have been the products of mass hysteria, the executions of “witches” in New England were not examples of vigilante justice: they were the results of “proper” court verdicts. (Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn one of my ancestors was tried as a witch. I’ve read the transcript of her trial. Sorry to disappoint: the court exonerated her.) The people of New England may have been isolated and narrow-minded, but they conducted themselves in isolated, narrow-minded, cohesive groups. Individuals conformed to locally-established rules. Or else.
To a great extent, these New England towns were communistic. Early freeholders received grants of land, and newer towns often formed around similar arrangements. But look at the footprints of those towns. They centered on a town square, with houses clustered around. Everyone belonged to and contributed to the town church. Individual farmlands were staked out behind the houses. At least in some of the towns, pigs – a main source of meat – were communally owned. When a member of the community became indigent, the freeholders voted on whether or not and how (and how much) to support her/him.
Now, what about those Southern Scots-Irish Pinker mentions? They – and their English cousins – came to the New World in groups, too. Many of these early settlers were involuntary immigrants, dumped on the colonies because they were debtors or criminals or prisoners of war. The British established Georgia, for instance as a repository for “the worthy poor of England, to provide an alternative to the overcrowded debtors’ prisons” in England. “It is estimated that some 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America, representing perhaps one-quarter of all British emigrants during the 18th century. The British also would often ship Irish and Scots to the Americas whenever there were rebellions in Ireland or Scotland, and they would be treated similar to the convicts, except that this also included women and children.” These immigrants and others came to the colonies as indentured servants. Unlike New England freeholders, these immigrants were powerless. Within the social hierarchy, they had more in common with African slaves (with whom they sometimes intermarried) than with the established government run by rich proprietors or the English crown. (The differences between the white involuntary immigrants and African slaves: the whites would be freed after a number of years.) Many of the male immigrants to New England were the government; immigrants to the South – white and black – were oppressed by the government. Even after white indentured servants earned their freedom, the government was not their friend. Yeoman farmers revolted more than once against government taxation and forfeiture of their land or crops. This is not to suggest there were not Scots-Irish and other religious communities in the South. There were. But they were never part of the colonial ruling class.
Similarly, many of the early white settlers to the American West were outcasts of some sort. Almost all were adventurous by nature. Whether the immigrants to the West came from the East Coast or from other countries, they were – for the most part – individualistic people willing to assert themselves and take great personal risk. Some did so because they had few or no good alternatives, but many went into the vast unknown because they believed in their own power to master extraordinary challenges. They thought they were self-reliant. Those who succeeded were self-reliant. As Pinker suggests, it is easy to see why the descendants of such adventurers disparage “government handouts,” even if some of the success of their ancestors can be attributed to direct government handouts in the form of land-grants. We should never discount the outlaw factor. Many of the early white settlers to Oklahoma, for instance, are called “Sooners” for a reason: they sneaked onto the land where they would stake their claims “sooner” than the government permitted, edging out would-be settlers who followed the law. A few decades later Oklahomans were so proud of these scoff-laws that they named their college football team Sooners.
If you look at the Republican party today, you find that it centers on a culture of resentment. Whether its rank-and-file members resent the government or minorities or new immigrants or the separation of church and state, they are always aggrieved about something. Richard Nixon played on that underlying resentment to woo the “Moral Majority” to the Republican party, and the party has been stoking those grievances ever since. What made Nixon and other party leaders so successful was not necessarily their own charisma and powers of persuasion, but the “pre-existing condition” into which they tapped: a condition that arguably stems from those early settlers’ suspicions and resentments of a government that excluded them at the same time it taxed and controlled them without their consent.
When you look to early American history for the differing attitudes toward government in Northern and Southern colonies, Steven Pinker’s argument looks pretty weak. The difference is not between farmers and herdsmen, as he suggests, but between citizens and outcasts. Immigrants from all over the world have exerted their influences in most U.S. states, and much of the “governing philosophy” of red and blue states is the product of events that happened centuries or at least many decades after the earliest white settlers began colonizing each state. Pinker’s general thesis may be right: the seeds of the red-state/blue-state divide can be found in the early history of each region. The problem with his theory is that he looks to the wrong dynamic to explain how these differences began.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com